Google Earth is a geographic visualization program that uses real satellite and aerial imagery, as well as 3D models to create the ultimate interactive digital globe.
I’ve used Google Earth a lot to create cool visualizations related to my research as a geographer, but honestly the best use I’ve found for Google Earth is related to travel. I’ll be going over some of the basics of Google Earth in this post and showing how it can really inspire you to travel, help plan your trip, and even allow you to document and share your journey. If you don’t have it already, Google Earth is free and can be downloaded here.
Let’s get started!
(Philosophical preamble to commence)
When you open up Google Earth, you’ll see our beautiful planet, ready to be explored. Take a brief moment to contemplate how the earth is a single connected unit against the cold vastness of space. Although the differences between cultures and creeds on this small planet may seem vast, all humans share the same desires such as happiness and love. Travel allows us to discover the importance of diversity while also feeling connected by our commonalities.
Phew, now that we have that out of the way, let’s check out the Google Earth Interface!
(Note: If you’re already pretty familiar with Google Earth, feel free to skip ahead to a more advanced section for pro tips related to travel)
At the top-right of your Google Earth screen is the menu. Honestly, you won’t need to do much up here if you’re exploring and planning a trip. Many of the functions are easier to perform by right-clicking to access the menu (on your Places, for example) or using the Toolbar icons. There are some menu options that are worth pointing out however:
View > Reset > Tilt/Compass/Tilt & Compass – Google Earth automatically rotates the compass a bit as you explore. You can reset the compass to due North here. If you have a mouse with a scroll wheel, you can push this down and move the mouse up or down to change the tilt – or the angle of view. You can reset this tilt to a straight-down view. You can also reset both the tilt and compass from this location in the menu.
Tools > Enter Flight Simulator – This is a fun tool that let’s you enter flight mode from your current view or from an airport of your choosing. Select either the F-16 or SR22 and enjoy the view. I like to use this mode to get a birds-eye view of an area I want to visit. Because let’s face it, I’m never going to really be able to fly around the temples of Angkor Wat.
View > Explore > Earth/Sky/Mars/Moon – Okay, so this isn’t exactly related to planning for travel (yet…), but it sure is fun to explore the Milky Way or the surface of Mars. Check out the spot on the Moon where humans took their first steps (or was it a giant leap?).
This is where you type in the place you’d like to explore. It can be anything from a country, village, national park, hotel, store, attraction etc. The search bar will guess what you’re typing so usually you won’t have to type the whole name out. Hit the Search button to fly to that location. You can click anywhere in the Main Screen to stop the zoom flight to that location.
3. Places and Placemarks
This is the area where you can store places that you’ve visited in Google Earth. I’d recommend creating different folders to keep your Places organized. Right-click on the My Places and then Add > Folder. Create a useful name that will let you know the contents of that folder, such as Europe Trip 2015.
Now let’s add a Place to this folder. Let’s say that you searched for Dubrovnik, or perhaps (more conventionally) Paris. With your newly created Europe Trip 2015 folder selected, click the Add Placemark icon – the yellow pushpin icon in the Toolbar. Alternatively, you could right click on the folder and Add > Placemark. Name your Placemark something meaningful when the window pops up and hit OK.
When adding Places keep in mind that the exact view you see is the view that will be saved. So feel free to adjust the tilt, compass, and altitude to capture a stunning view. You can double-click a Place to zoom back to that Place’s exact view. In order to change the location of a Placemark, right-click it and go to Properties. While the properties box is up you will be able to drag the Placemark to relocate it.
When you have multiple folders, it is possible to drag your Places to different folders. Just drag and drop the Place on the folder name. As you acquire more places it will be helpful to keep the folders you’re not using collapsed. To expand or collapse a folder use the small arrow icon to the left of the folder name.
The Layers area allows you to turn on or off the various labels and icons that populate your view. If you’re looking for a more natural view of the earth as you explore, you could turn most or all of these off by clicking the check box. I really enjoy turning the Photos layer on once I get zoomed into a specific destination. This allows you to view geo-located, user-submitted images. I’d also recommend exploring some famous landmarks like Ayasofya or Petra with the 3D Buildings box checked. I find this a fun way to get excited and educated about the place I’m going to visit.
The main function in the Toolbar you will use now is the Add Placemark tool. You can also hide the sidebar with the button on the left. Another somewhat useful tool is the ruler which allows you to measure distances. You can measure a series of line segments by clicking repeatedly on the map. This is useful for planning a road trip or a walking tour. There are also options for drawing geographically referenced lines and polygons which can be exported into advanced programs such as ArcMap.
6. Main Window
Here is where you’ll do your exploring. You can also enter full-screen mode from the View menu. At the bottom of the Main Window you can view interesting details about the imagery you are viewing such as the date the images were captured, elevation above sea level, and viewing elevation.
7. Navigation tools
These tools can help you navigate Google Earth, but many of these functions can be done with your mouse if you’re using one with a scroll wheel. The scroll wheel allows you to zoom in and out and (when pushed) tilt up and down. The circular icon at the top represents the cardinal directions North, East, West, and South. You can grab the “N” icon to rotate the direction. The circle with the eye icon can be clicked and dragged to change the tilt of your view. The hand icon below is used to pan around the map. The person icon can be clicked and dragged onto any point on the map to view a ground-level perspective of that location. The bottom bar icon can be used to zoom in and out.
Get Inspired by Exploring
Think of a place you’ve been wanting to visit. Maybe it’s a place that you learned about in childhood and have always dreamed of seeing. Maybe it’s a place you saw Anthony Bourdain visiting the other night on Parts Unknown. Wherever it is, enter it into the search bar and fly there in Google Earth.
I always love seeing how a city is situated among the physical geography of the landscape as you zoom in. The way a river bisects the city or the mountains contain it to a valley. I find this perspective helpful and orientating when actually visiting the place in person.
Exploring the physical geography near Interlaken, Switzerland
As you zoom in further to your destination, I’d recommend turning on Borders and Labels, Places, and perhaps the Road Layers. Now you can browse the aerial image of your destination for major landmarks and roadways to begin to get orientated. If you notice a landmark you’re interested in, turn on the Photos Layers and have a peek at some of the pictures which other travelers have submitted.
I like to tilt the view a bit and zoom into the city center or other interesting area. If you have the 3D Buildings Layer activated you may notice some major buildings popping out.
Downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
This is a good way to get to know the neighborhoods or sectors of a city. Then you can begin to think about what area of the city you’d like to find a hotel. As you explore these places, or different views of a single place, add Placemarks to your folder. This way you can begin to build a list of places and sights you would like to see. These Placemarks are necessary for creating a Tour, which we will go over below.
Adding Hyperlinks, Pictures and More to Placemarks
Placemarks can be customized in many ways. To access these options right-click on a Placemark (either in the Places menu or the Main Window) and click Properties. To change the icon of the Placemark click on the pushpin icon to the right of the name. Hyperlinks can be added by clicking the Add link button.
Images can be added as well but need to be online images with a URL. If you find an image you would like to use using a Google Images search for example, right click the image and click Copy Image URL (or similar depending on your browser). Then simply paste this URL into Image URL field.
You can change the style and color of the text from the default. Also, you can change the view and altitude, but if you’ve already found a good view for your Placemark don’t mess with this.
Creating a Tour in Google Earth
Now that you’ve explored your destinations, found awesome views and saved them as Placemarks in a folder, it’s time to create a tour. Make sure you have all your Placemarks you’d like to have in your tour in the same folder!
- Uncheck Layers such as Photos and Places if you’d like a more natural, realistic looking tour
- Select the Folder in Places where your Placemarks are saved
- Press the icon which looks like a folder with a play button at the bottom of Places (circled below)
Click here with the proper folder selected to start your tour
- This will begin the tour starting from the location listed first. The tour will pause for a moment on each destination before zooming to the next
- You can use the pause/play button in the Main Window to pause the tour – you can then click on your Placemark to see the image and/or link associated with it
- You can save the tour by right-clicking on the folder and clicking Save Place As. Either kml or kmz format will work for saving your tour
- Now you can send your places to friends and family who use Google Earth by simply emailing or otherwise sharing the kml or kmz file
The second way to create a tour in Google Earth is less automated but allows you to control the view and record your voice along with what you’re viewing. Here’s how:
- Uncheck Layers such as Photos and Places if you’d like a more natural, realistic looking tour
- Click the video camera icon in the Toolbar
- A small window will pop up in the bottom-left of the Main Window with two icons – a red record button and a microphone
- Click the microphone icon to record your voice along with what you are viewing in Google Earth
- Click the red record icon to record only what you are viewing without narration
- After clicking either button, everything you do in Google Earth will be recorded
- You can search or click on Placemarks during recording to zoom to locations
- When you push the record button again recording will stop and your tour will play back
- Click the disc icon to save your recording to your Places
- You can export this tour by right-clicking and hitting Save Place As
- Share your tour with friends and family
Google Earth’s virtual tours are a great way to share a potential itinerary with friends and family. They can also be super useful for documenting a trip you’ve just taken. Simply create a Placemark for each of your destinations and put them all in one folder and hit play. Or use method 2 to manually fly and pan to each location, relying on your newly acquired knowledge of that area’s geography.
For another useful travel tool be sure to check out the YTP Trip Calculator, a spreadsheet I created that let’s you easily plan and budget your trip. It’ll do all the math for you and create an easy-to-read pie chart of estimated expenses. Best of all, it’s free!
Thank you and safe travels everyone!